Beat cancer by banning bacon butties?
Yesterday, processed meat hit the headlines after the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) named processed meat like bacon and sausages a carcinogen. Their results were published in The Lancet.
What is processed meat?
It includes sausages, hot dogs, burgers, bacon, corned beef, chorizo, beef jerky, pastrami, ham and other cold cuts of meat. Basically if meat has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or by use of chemicals then it is processed.
What types of cancer are the red and processed meat linked to?
Processed meat was most strongly linked to bowel cancer but there was also an association with stomach cancer. The strongest, but still limited, evidence for an association with red meat was for bowel cancer. There was also an association with pancreatic and prostate cancer.
How bad is it really?
Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). Other members of this group include tobacco smoking and asbestos. However, this does NOT mean that processed meat is as bad for you as smoking or being exposed to asbestos. It is grouped according to the strength of evidence about something being a cause of cancer, rather than assessing the level of risk.
Red meat was classified only as a group 2A which means it is a ‘probable carcinogen’ due to the insufficient evidence to class it as anything higher. It is recommended that you eat less than 18oz (510 g) of cooked red meat a week, that’s the equivalent of 4 quarter pounder beef burgers.
The study found that even eating relatively small amounts of processed meat each day, for example a small hot dog, increases a person’s risk of bowel cancer by 18%, compared to someone that doesn’t eat processed meat. That is not to say that eating processed meat would definitely give you cancer, but it does increase your risk.
In the press release , Dr Kurt Straif, Head of the IARC Monographs Programme said
For an individual, the risk of developing bowel cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but the risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.
According to the most recent estimates by the Global Burden or Disease Project, about 34,000 cancer deaths per year are attributable to diets high in processed red meat.
To put this in context, tobacco smoking is associated with around 1 million cancer deaths a year, alcohol consumption is associated with 600,000 deaths and more than 200,000 deaths are associated with air pollution according to IARC.
How do these meats increase the risk of cancer?
It isn’t exactly clear just yet. It could be something to do with the smoking process or it could be the nitrites or nitrates or the high temperatures used. High-temperature cooking methods generate compounds that may make them more carcinogenic but this is not well understood. More research is needed to explore why these processed meats are carcinogenic.
So what should I be eating and what should I be avoiding?
It has long been recommended that people only eat red and processed meat in moderation, a few times a week at the most. Enjoy it as part of a healthy, balanced diet alongside plenty of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat. The research did not go as far as assessing whether there was a safe limit of processed meat that could be consumed.
How can we beat bowel cancer?
To ensure more people beat this disease we are currently funding 11 bowel cancer projects around the world. This includes Dr Louis Vermeulen at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam. He is trying to help healthy cells win the fight against bowel cancer. Like other cancers, the beginning of bowel cancer can be a real competition between healthy and potentially cancerous cells. Dr Vermeulen is trying to swing the advantage towards healthy cells, stopping cancer from getting a foothold.
We are also funding Dr Tracy Putoczki at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, Australia who is trying to understand how bowel cancer progresses and spreads. She hopes her findings could shine a light on new proteins that could be turned on or off with new drugs. Ultimately, if such drugs could be developed, it would help improve bowel cancer survival rates for patients and their families in the future.
So what’s the take home message?
Eating lots of red and processed meat every day can increase your risk of bowel cancer, and possibly other cancers. However, the odd bacon buttie or sausage sandwich is not going to pose you too much of a threat. As with all treats, eat it in moderation.
Whilst we all continue enjoying red and processed meat occasionally, along with other things that increase our risk of cancer, we must keep funding research to beat it. Worldwide Cancer Research are therefore doing all we can to help ensure fewer lives are cut short by cancer, like these projects.
Read the full press release here.
Cancer Research UK have written a blog post explaining the findings and why the IARC’s classification is so confusing
The American Institute for Cancer Research have also written a blog post on this.